On a recent episode of The Howard Stern Show, the “shock-jock” host asked his guest, music legend Paul Simon, a mix of questions about music, life, art, and anything else that came to mind. Stern, as you may know, rose to fame with his exaltation of immorality and shameless self-adulation. At the very end of the interview, Stern said:

“Paul, just give me one last answer. You seem very wise. You’ve lived through everything. You’ve created great masterpieces. Is there a God? Because I need to know. I’m getting older. Is this it for me? Am I going to die and that’s it or am I going somewhere? And please answer it in a serious manner.”

Simon responded, “This is my feeling about God or Creator. The planet that I’m living on is so beautiful and the universe is so awe-inspiring. If that is the work of a creator, I say, ‘Thanks so much. I really love your work on the universe. Excellent work, coming from me, Paul Simon, to you, really dig what you’re doing.’ If it turns out that there’s another explanation for creation, I’m still unbelievably grateful for my existence. I still think it’s amazing. If it turns out, I thought it was God but it’s some other explanation, it doesn’t matter to me…..”

Then, Stern interrupted, “But it’s so cruel. We have this existence and then we have to disappear. It’s hard.”

For those taking notes on popular culture, this moment stands out as significant but not unique. People are asking big questions about the biggest issues of life—even Howard Stern.

For quite some time, these questions had gone dormant—or so it appeared. There didn’t seem to be a need. Life was fun, times were prosperous, and people were, more or less, happy. In addition, there were philosophical reasons for avoiding the big questions. From the heights of academia to the pedestrian realm of TikTok, influencers declared there were no answers. For postmodern thinkers, there are no overarching meta-narratives to explain meta-realities. So don’t waste your time asking or searching.

To put this into historical context (acknowledging this is terribly oversimplified): in premodern times (before the so-called enlightenment of the 18th century), people thought there was such a thing as truth, and you could find it in God. In modern times, people thought there was such a thing as truth, but you couldn’t find it in God, if God even exists. You’d find truth through reason, discovery, and study. In postmodern times, people thought there was no such thing as truth, but it didn’t matter. You created your own truth.

But today it seems that postmodernism is running out of steam. The insistence that there are no answers has left people empty and wondering if maybe, just maybe, those postmodernists are wrong. Maybe there is such a thing as truth or meaning or something worth latching onto, even if we’re not quite sure where to look.

Some want a better term than “post-postmodernism” and have proposed “Metamodernism.” We’ll see if that term sticks. But there’s no denying that, after a time of non-searching, the search for truth, meaning, purpose, or “a larger story” is back on. And, for Christians, wanting to tell those searchers there is a larger and better story, this is good news indeed.

When scientifically minded friends told us we were nothing more than random collections of molecules or when artistically-oriented acquaintances said appreciation for beauty was only part of evolution’s process for ongoing procreation, we faced a tough playing field. Finding common ground for pre-pre-pre-evangelistic conversations seemed impossible.

Our friends said “Amen” (in their own secular ways) to such dire materialist proclamations like this from biologist Jacques Monod, “Man must at last wake up out of his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. He must realize that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world; a world that is deaf to his music, and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings and his crimes.”[i]

Or, more painfully, we read this in Yuval Noah Harari’s bestselling Sapiens:

According to the science of biology, people were not “created.” They have evolved. And they certainly did not evolve to be “equal.” The idea of equality is inextricably intertwined with the idea of creation. The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God. However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are “equal”? . . . Similarly, there are no such things as rights in biology . . . . Homo sapiens has no natural rights, just as spiders, hyenas and chimpanzees have no natural rights. But don’t tell that to our servants, lest they murder us at night.[ii]

Our materialist friends have prophets who pronounce their “truth” with unflinching confidence. For example, National Geographic’s headquarters has these words of Carl Sagan enshrined in their lobby: “The cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.”

Recently, however, some people wonder if there’s purpose behind the beauty they see through the James Webb space telescope. They puzzle over the evolutionary value of magnificently colorful flora at the bottom of the ocean where light cannot penetrate. They delight at the complexity in the skeletons of the minutest of insects. They flirt with the possibility that some of their previously reductionist views may have gone too far. At least, they acknowledge some level of incongruity between their materialist assumptions and their romantic longings. Some reluctantly ask how Carl Sagan could have been so sure about “all that ever was or will be.” Honest thinkers suggest that “there are no overarching explanations” sounds like an overarching explanation.

Take, for example, neurophysiologist Christopher Koch’s calling himself a “romantic reductionist.” For many years, Koch was a professor at the California Institute of Technology and later formed the Allen Institute for Brain Science. More than most people, he could have concluded we were merely matter and our brains consisted of nothing other than cells. But he landed elsewhere. In his book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, he writes, “I lost my childhood faith, yet I’ve never lost my abiding faith that everything is as it should be. I feel deep in my bones that the universe has meaning that we can realize.”[iii]

Koch believes that all creatures have consciousness, even earthworms. But he quickly admits he can’t prove that and humbly states, “I continue to be amazed by the ability of highly educated and intelligent people to fool themselves…Nobody is immune from self-deception and self-delusion.”[iv] While reading Koch, I kept imagining him saying, “There’s got to be more than just physics.”

We see similar discussions in the fields of the social sciences. For example, Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the recent work Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life defines awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.”[v]

He proposes eight areas of life where people experience awe: “collective effervescence” (experiences during weddings and other celebrations), nature, music, visual design, spirituality or religion, stories of life and death, epiphanies (“when we suddenly understand essential truths about life”), and the one he lists first, as the most significant and most common, “other people’s courage, kindness, strength, or overcoming,” a category he sums up as “moral beauty.”[vi]

Keltner says he’s not a religious person but concludes his book with these lofty insights, “The big idea of awe [is] we are part of systems larger than the self”[vii] and “the epiphany of awe is that its experience connects our individual selves with the vast forces of life. In awe we understand we are part of many things that are much larger than the self. Being part of this scientific story of awe has taught me that the evolution of our species built into our brains and bodies an emotion, our species-defining passion, that enables us to wonder together about the great questions of living: What is life? Why am I alive? Why do we all die? What is the purpose of it all? Our experiences of awe hint at faint answers to these perennial questions and move us to wander toward the mysteries and wonders of life.”[viii]

It’s not just academicians who explore these dynamics. Popular author Susan Cain in her recent work Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole comes remarkably close to embracing C. S. Lewis’s view of Christianity. She quotes his essay “The Weight of Glory” with high praise, calling the following paragraph, “one of literature’s most gorgeous passages”:

Our commonest expedient is to call [the longing] beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter…But the books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.

But then, in what can only be labeled as an absolute contradiction of what she just chose to quote from Lewis, Cain tells her readers:

As for me, I believe that the bittersweet tradition extinguishes these distinctions between atheists and believers. The longing comes through Yahweh or Allah, Christ or Krishna, no more and no less than it comes through the books and the music; they are equally the divine, or none of them are the divine, and the distinction makes no difference; they are all it. When you went to your favorite concert and heard your favorite musician singing the body electric, that was it; when you met your love and gazed at each other with shining eyes, that was it; when you kissed your five-year-old good night and she turned to you solemnly and said, ‘Thank you for loving me so much,’ that was it: all of them facets of the same jewel.”[ix]

I fear for when Susan Cain finds that these things she calls “it” crushes her worshipping heart, exactly as Lewis predicted. 

In the realm of art, we can find many hints that artists wonder if there’s more to life than what we see on canvases or hear at concerts. In Rick Rubin’s The Creative Act: A Way of Being (one of the top 100 books on Amazon) we read, “By conventional definition, the purpose of art is to create physical and digital artifacts. To fill shelves with pottery, books, and records. Though artists generally aren’t aware of it, that end work is a by-product of a greater desire. We aren’t creating to produce or sell material products. The act of creation is an attempt to enter a mysterious realm. A longing to transcend. What we create allows us to share glimpses of an inner landscape, one that is beyond our understanding. Art is our portal to the unseen world.”[x]

What can we say about these delightful doxologies from unlikely sources? I believe we should quote them, just as Paul quoted the poets in Athens. We should use them to point people to the God who made the world full of beauty and placed eternity in our hearts (see Ecclesiastes 3:11). We can tell people that it’s this God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

When Paul said, “as some of your own poets have said,” he quoted a writer who espoused, “we are his offspring” (Acts 17:28). That poet probably didn’t share Paul’s theology that people are created in the image of God. In fact, if you really wanted to be picky, you could make the case that not all people are “God’s offspring.” Only those born-again believers in Jesus are “children of God.” All others are created by God but not adopted into his family. But Paul believed he could use the quote, however incomplete or inaccurate, to point people to the truth of Scripture. If Paul could do that and God chose to include his speech on Mars Hill in holy Scripture, I think we can quote Howard Stern, Paul Simon, Susan Cain, and many other modern day “poets.”

Some “poets” of our day influence on a very popular level as songwriters and film producers. Those who get their songs on playlists or their stories on streaming feeds shape people’s thinking, affections, and longings profoundly. But so do researchers whose academic journal articles get quoted in the New York Times. So do writers of bestsellers that make their way into Oprah’s Book Club. So do celebrities who speak at commencement ceremonies. (Taylor Swift recently received an honorary doctorate from NYU). And we should not neglect TikTok influencers who have millions (that’s not an exaggeration) of followers. Many of these seem to be saying there’s more to life than what the atheists, reductionists, nihilists, and materialists have been saying for decades.

It’s worth noting who was in Paul’s audience on Mars Hill. Acts 17 tells us some were epicureans and stoics. The first group exalted pleasure as the highest good. The second went in the opposite direction and urged their followers to lower their expectations. I wonder if Howard Stern would have garnered applause from the epicureans and Susan Cain might have found resonance with the stoics.

And note that both groups shied away from conclusions. Instead, they “spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21). They might have proclaimed, “It’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey.” Or, as I saw posted on a university professor’s door, “It is better to debate an idea without settling it than to settle an idea without debating it.” Into this atmosphere of uncertainty, we need to find ways to rephrase Paul’s words into our conversations, “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).

Some of us only want to find fault in the words or lifestyles of unbelievers around us. We quote their lyrics or read their writings or watch their interviews and scoff at how lost they are. If we’re penetratingly honest, we admit we even take a kind of sick delight in their downfalls. Far better for us to reflect on how gracious God has been in our salvation, how lost we were before he opened our blind eyes or how messed up our lives would be now if he hadn’t rescued us. If we allow the power of the gospel to transform our thinking and emotions, we may even weep over how our world has harmed so many people with its lies and lures. Then, just maybe, we might quote one of their poets and say, “I think he’s onto something,” or “I think she’s asking the right question,” or “I wonder if that movie is pointing in the right direction.”

These can be the starts of many good, eternally significant conversations. But we shouldn’t be surprised if people resist when we pivot from “I wonder” to “I know.” After exploring common ground and helping people ask questions they should be asking, sooner or later, we need to point them to Jesus, encourage them to read one of the gospels, and ask deeper questions about what happens after this life comes to an end. Jesus has great answers to all of life’s questions—no matter who asks them. But his answers are not always the ones people want to hear.

As C. S. Lewis observed about the kind of God people want to find:

An ‘impersonal God’—well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads—better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap—best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband—that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?[xi]

This process of quoting metamodern poets and pointing people to the infinite God can be exhilarating. But not always. In fact, most often, it may be painful. Did you notice how Paul felt as he strolled around Athens, looking at all the many temples, statues, and idols? He was “distressed” (Acts 17:16). He knew that idols cannot satisfy and cannot save. No matter how thrilled people may sound about their latest experience, saying they found “it,” we know “it” won’t last.

If we need encouragement to keep reading the poets of our day, keep quoting them to people who seem a million miles from saving faith, and keep praying for God to soften their sin-hardened hearts, we can reflect on the biography of the man who delivered that oration in Athens. When he later retold his life’s story (see Acts 26), he said, ” I was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” That included standing by and approving an angry mob’s stoning to death a Christian man named Stephen (see Acts 7 & 8).

If God could change Paul, there’s hope for Howard Stern, Paul Simon, Susan Cain, and, well…anyone.

[i] quoted in Christof Koch, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, MIT Press, 2017, 4.

[ii] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harper Perennial, 2015, 109, 111.

[iii] Koch, 12.

[iv] Koch, 158.

[v] Dacher Keltner, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, Penguin Press, 2023, 7.

[vi] Keltner, 10-18.

[vii] Keltner, 237.

[viii] Keltner, 250.

[ix] Susan Cain, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, Random House, 2022, 54.

[x] Rick Rubin, The Creative Act: A Way of Being, Penguin Press, 2022, 31.

[xi] C. S. Lewis, Miracles, originally 1947 by C. S. Lewis Pre. Ltd., this edition HarperCollins, 2001, 150.

Dr. Randy Newman was the Senior Fellow for Apologetics and Evangelism at the CS Lewis Institute. After serving for over 30 years with Campus Crusade for Christ, he established Connection Points, a ministry to help Christians engage people’s hearts the way Jesus did. He published seven books, Questioning Evangelism, Corner Conversations, Bringing the Gospel Home, Engaging with Jewish People, Unlikely Converts: Improbable Stories of Faith and What They Teach Us About Evangelism, Mere Evangelism: 10 Insights from C. S. Lewis to Help You Share Your Faith, Questioning Faith: Indirect Journeys of Belief through Terrains of Doubt, and numerous articles about evangelism and other ways our lives intertwine with God’s creation.

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